A decade and a half ago, I was offered the chance to go and see Bill Hicks live. It was in Birmingham, and the timing wasn’t really very good, so I turned it down figuring I would have another chance to see him the next time he was around. Less than a year later he was dead. There was no other chance. It’s a mistake I wasn’t going to make again. So the minute I saw that Chris Rock was coming over this side of the Atlantic for the first time ever, my ass was on Ticketmaster.
The hype has been tremendous, with many calls that Rock is ready to join the likes of Hicks, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce in the pantheon of great comedy gods. His problem, of course, is that each of those who came before have won their place, at least partly, by either dying young or, in the case of Pryor, having their career cut short through illness. It is difficult for a comedian to be taken that seriously while they are still active, and suicide seems a rather drastic way to clear up the matter and one I’m sure Rock would sooner not follow.
But whether he is among the greats or not, surely anyone compiling a list of, say, the hundred best stand-up routines of all time, could not fail to include his “Niggas vs Black People” and “$5,000 Bullets” in there somewhere. And if there was nothing of quite that same calibre on show on this night, there were at least a couple of moments when he came close.
But before we get on to the main event, I should say a few words about the support. Mario Joyner is a successful comic in his own right. In America he has had his own TV shows, as well as making several feature film appearances. And he is a funny guy. But the difference is notable when you come to a venue of this size. Joyner just didn’t have the personality to fill it, and he looked lost in the middle of such a giant stage. So material that would probably kill in the close confines of a comedy club was only capable of raising some mild tittering here.
Rock has no such problems. He has personality and charisma to spare, and he has learned his craft well. And it is also clear he has studied hard at the feet of his own heroes, Pryor and Eddie Murphy. He prowls the stage like a predator, with the sudden halt and stare when he wants to emphasise a point that is pure Pryor.
One problem every performer who crosses the Atlantic to do comedy in either direction faces is the cultural shift. Rock acknowledges this straight away, telling the crowd that he had to arrive a few days early to find out what would be funny here. He then goes into a short routine clearly designed just for the UK shows, specific British material about how worthless the dollar is compared to the pound, and whether or not darts is actually a sport. But for the most part he sticks to what has obviously been prepared as his show for the whole tour, and simply trusts that we will be familiar enough with American names and personalities to get the references.
And that is good, because the middle section of the set, where he analyses the current US primary elections is probably the strongest sustained material of the night. The material about what it would be like to have a black first lady (“no, you ain’t president, we is president”) is among his best, and thankfully he doesn’t labour the Bush material which has been done to death by this point, contenting himself with a few choice barbs, the best being pointing out that Bush has been so bad, the electorate are willing to elect anyone now so long as it ain’t another white man.
For the rest of the set he mostly relies on old standard material, relationship humour and riffs on racial differences, which is good stuff but doesn’t really mark him out from what anyone else is doing. Although in the latter he manages to hit his absolute peak, a moment of near comic genius when he explains the one and only occasion on which it is acceptable for a white person to use the word “nigga.”
So perhaps the hype has been a little overpushed, and the press hyperbole has gone a little too far. But Rock, if not necessarily the greatest comedian of his generation, is certainly up there among them, and opportunities to see these guys are all too few and far between. It was a long trip down to the smoke, on a blustery snow-bound night, but I’m glad I made the effort. Let’s hope he doesn’t leave it so long before giving me the chance to do so again.